After going out for dinner with some friends, they mentioned the Bohemian Café; a great place to have dessert they said. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the dessert selection was gone. As we looked around the place we noticed that it was connected to another business establishment. Looked familiar, but as I crossed the threshold into it, I felt transported back into the early 70’s. Just like that, I had discovered Horizon Records (HR) and wow – it is an amazing looking store. Immediately I felt the need to do a post about it; so I came back a few days later, spoke to the owner and we scheduled a time for an interview and some pictures.
A week or so later, I sat down with the owner of Horizon Records, Gene Berger at the Bohemian Café bar and had a great chat.
It has been 39 years since Gene Berger opened the Horizon Records store in Greenville SC. How did HR come about I asked Gene…”remember it was the 70’s…it seems I came out of a blackout and I owned a record store!” he said. While I am sure there is some truth to that fuzzy memory of how it all come to be, I am sure there was hard work behind it. At a time when most of the well know independent records stores have been put out of business by digital downloads and sites like iTunes and Pandora; Horizon Records continues to be relevant amongst serious audiophiles and those seeking what a real record store offers and used to be like.
Gene was born in Maryland, was raised in California and Oklahoma and moved to Greenville in the 10th grade (1970). Gene cannot remember a time when he did not like music; his first record was “The Letter” by the Box Tops, he loved the Beatles as mostly all did. His taste in music covers, amongst others, Jazz, rock, blues, classical. His top three favorite musicians are Brad Mehldau (www.bradmehldau.com), John Lee Hooker and Johan Sebastian Bach – I am including a link to Brad’s site as I must say never heard of him; having visited his site and listened to some of his music – he is very good!
Meet Gene (left), if I could tell you this picture was taken in the 70’s I think you could believe me. However, Gene is very much engaged in the present, working to assure a future for his business and helping others in the community.
Regarding vinyl records and CD’s vs. digital files…“I love the tangible object, the ephemera, the collectability, the tactile connection with the music. This is who we are. It is not the same as here is a file in my iPhone or iPod, I am about — look at this album cover, this record. New or old vintage record, …look at this CD, I want to read the lineup – who is playing bass, etc. You cannot do this with a digital file; you may find information on the web about it, but I do not like to read it on a screen: prefer to have it as part of the tactile product.”
Perhaps my favorite quote from Gene was his response to those that asks him…How is business Gene? He always answers “despite the world and my best efforts, we are still here”.
Now in its third location (2-A West Stone Ave. Greenville SC.), Horizon Records has seen much change over the years. When the digital medium came out, Gene saw it as a fad, but was never fearful or paranoid about it. Paraphrasing some of Gene’s comments on change … things do change so you must find how far you are willing to embrace them and/or modify them to fit your own taste and values. Gene spends a lot of time researching how he can better serve his customers; while he is not a statistics follower he recently read that for the first time since digital music came out sales have flattened. He believes that the main drivers for this is the resurgence of vinyl, but more so because more people are streaming music instead of buying it.
In terms of sales demographics, Gene sees his demographics as a “rainbow coalition of different niches”, he feels that this is part of the beauty of it, but this also brings the intense challenge of keeping a wide range of tastes satisfied. “How do we keep the guy who wants the latest indie rock piece that is in all the blogs as happy as the fellow that wants the Blue Grass CD, as well as the lady that wants to go into the classical room and find a specific opera record, and then there are people digging for dollar records and on and on” … not an easy task, but that is the beauty of it.
Gene’s perseverance, business savvy (he may not agree with this one), customer focus and willingness to ride difficult times have contributed to Horizon Record’s longevity. Gene remembers his opening day as him being more focused on assuring he had the music mix he wanted and if he had the right posters up. His first year was good enough to try for the second one; and so it went the years that followed. Gene and his staff of 10, a very diverse and knowledgeable group of individuals, seem immersed into music just as Gene is. This is not your Sam Goodie or Frye record store, where knowledgeable staff was hard to come by; when you visit HR you will be dealing with people who know and love what they sell. Horizon Records has a strong and faithful fan base intent on assuring their beloved store stays in business. I searched for some customer feedback on Yelp and Trip Advisor; I found nothing but good things said about HR.
Today, the store is busy and riding the vinyl resurgence while still offering CD’s and some music related books. It is very well-organized making it easy to find your type of music. Believe me, the genre variety is amazing and covers many countries. The prices are very reasonable; some right down inexpensive considering that many of the vinyl albums offered may have some sentimental value to you. There are many records to choose from $1, $2, $4, $7 and up; new vinyl albums start around $16 depending on the artist.
Gene sees HR open for indefinite years to come. While nothing is certain, his passion for music, HR and the community he lives in is very evident. Gene feeds on these passions and keeps himself and his business relevant by supporting talent from across the region. Gene feels that HR will continue to exist, as many seek obscure releases and the irreplaceable factor of people interfacing with other people…“We get so digitized in general, that we never leave our houses, we worked from home, we can order our groceries online and they show up at our door, Amazon, website x,y,z… I call it the Cave Man fire factor; you need to come out of your cave and relate with others to stay human”. In an era where most young people only listen to music through earbuds, Gene feels that you really have not experienced recorded music until you have played a record or high density CD through a good amplifier and a pair of good speakers. We have lost much with heavily compressed digital files such as mp3, but you do not have to compromise; it is really your choice.
HR also stays relevant by hosting local/regional talent, where the feature musician plays to a packed store. Usually, that night the same group plays a full show at the Bohemian Café right next to HR. I think this is a perfect way to connect and provide less known musicians with welcomed exposure. In fact, as I was conducting my interview with Gene, a group was setting up to play a 30-minute set at 3:30PM to be followed by a full session at 10:00PM at the Bohemian Café. The group is composed of Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith, with Shawn Zorn (drums) and Will Sexton (guitar); they are promoting their new release Motel Mirrors.
Finally, and probably most impactful, Gene promotes an annual record fair. For the last 5 years, it has been held at The Handlebar in Greenville (3 blocks down HR). It is like a swap meet where dealers come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama and other states. The event is very well attended by experienced collectors, general music lovers and has proven to be a great way to introduce vinyl to younger people that did not grow up with that medium.
Allow me to take you through a visual tour of Horizon Records and additional information; some based on comments made by Gene. If you are in town and like music regardless of the medium, you must stop and check Horizon Records out. If you like vinyl records or have been thinking of some vinyl you used to own but can no longer find -this is the perfect place for you. You will be amazed at the place, the people taking care of you and the experience as a whole. I see myself becoming a regular visitor and customer; keeping locally own small businesses like this open should be something we all should strive for and support.
I hope you have enjoyed this visual tour, but know I cannot give Horizon Records any justice with it; I can only provide a taste of it. HR must be experienced in person. HR feel is unique, the selection huge and covering the widest gamut imaginable, the deals are many, the staff knowledgeable and friendly. If you cannot visit HR in Greenville because you live far away, then I recommend you search for an independent record store in your area that has been opened for a while and sells vinyl records. If you are lucky, it will be half as good as Horizon Records. Thank you Gene for the time you took to speak to me and share your story. I wish you many more years; keep them spinning!
Link to Horizon Records Website: http://blog.horizonrecords.net